Sea Stars Continue to Die By the Millions
from Alaska to California — Is It A Virus?
© 2014 by Linda Moulton Howe
“The situation in Puget Sound looks really grim. It’s really bad there.
Several different species (of sea stars) — they are just dying like flies.”
- Neil McDaniel, Videographer and Naturalist, Vancouver, B. C., August 2014
Healthy sea stars on a rock outcrop near Croker Island, Indian Arm, British Columbia,
on Oct. 9, 2013. Underwater image © 2013 by Neil McDaniel.
20 days later, the living creatures on the same rock outcrop have died, Croker Island,
Indian Arm, British Columbia, on October 29, 2013. Image © 2013 by Neil McDaniel.
August 27, 2014 Vancouver, Washington and Miami, Florida - The northeast Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Vancouver and down the West Coast has been warmer than usual for months. At the same time, millions of sea stars — at least a dozen different species of them — have rotted away in a mysterious wasting disease that causes arms to drop off and then the bodies to dissolve away. Cornell University DNA research is said to be leading up to publication that the cause is a virus. But many scientists are linking the warming waters and warming climate change to an increase in all kinds of microbes that cause disease from the disintegrating sea stars to the decline in corals all over the planet.
The lower left arm of this purple ochre sea star in Oregon disintegrated and fell away
as the sea star died from the sea star wasting syndrome that has killed millions of sea stars
along the west coast of North America since the late summer of 2013. Image
by Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman courtesy Oregon State University.
By October 2013, the Seattle Aquarium in Puget Sound, the Vancouver Aquarium and the California Science Center in Santa Cruz told investigating scientists that 100% of their sea stars were melting away and dying inside their protective tanks. These were sea stars that had no contact with the masses of wild sea stars in the ocean. So what would cause 100% mortality in aquariums? One fact is that the aquariums pump unfiltered Pacific Ocean sea water into the tanks.
Puget Sound near Seattle (bottom red circle) to Vancouver and Howe Sound
(upper left red circle) have had severe sea star die-offs with the bizarre “melting”
syndrome and the Seattle Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium and other sites have had
100% sea star mortality in their enclosed tanks, implying the contaminant is in the
Pacific Ocean water that is piped into the aquarium tanks.
One of the divers in Howe Sound, Indian Arm and Puget Sound is videographer and naturalist Neil McDaniel, 65-years-old, and a resident of Vancouver, Canada. He has been diving for nearly half a century and is shocked by the sea star devastation he continues to see with his own eyes ongoing through 2014.
Neil McDaniel, videographer and naturalist, filming in Howe Sound near Vancouver, B. C., Canada.
“The situation in British Columbia is ongoing. The sea star wasting disease has not decreased or diminished in any way. In fact, animals continue to die and now we know they are up to a dozen or more different species besides the sunflower stars, which were the big sea stars that we first saw dying in Howe Sound close to Vancouver.
Healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Image by blm.gov.
[ Editor's Note: NOAA reports,“Sunflower sea stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) are large predators of the sea floor, reaching arm spans of up to three feet. They are surprisingly fast, voracious hunters for clams, urchins, snails, abalone, sea cucumbers, and other sea stars. Adult sunflower sea stars can move at the astonishing speed of one meter per minute using 15,000 tube feet which line the undersides of their bodies. They range in color from bright orange to purple, and have a soft, velvet-textured body and 16 to 24 arms studded with powerful suckers. They are easily stressed by predators such as large fish and other sea stars, and have the ability to shed arms to escape, growing them back within a few weeks. Sunflower sea stars are common in the Pacific from Alaska to Southern California.” ]
AND I REMEMBER WHEN WE TALKED IN DECEMBER 2013 A FEW MONTHS AGO THAT THE CORNELL DNA PEOPLE THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING TO BE ABLE TO FIND WHATEVER THE PROBLEM WAS THROUGH DNA SEQUENCING AND FINDING SOME SORT OF MICROBE. BUT IT’S MY UNDERSTANDING AS WE TALK IN MID-AUGUST 2014 THAT THERE STILL IS NOT AN IDENTIFICATION OF WHAT IS WRONG?
Well, I think they know what’s wrong now, but they haven’t published it yet. My understanding is that Ian Hewson at the University of Cornell (Cornell University) — he has isolated what this thing is and that they are going to come out and say it is a virus — but what does that mean? There’s nothing really we can do about it! I mean, the virus seems to be very aggressive. It’s virulent. It’s striking many different species of sea stars.
It’s kind of interesting that other types of echinoderms, which are animals related to sea stars such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crinoids (sea lilies) — those kinds of animals — have not been affected that I’ve seen by this virus. It’s restricted to the sea stars at this point.
THIS IS CAUSING ARMS TO FALL OFF AND TISSUE.
Healthy sea star on left next to sick sea star on right dying
of mysterious wasting disease in which legs fall off and the body
rots away. DNA studies point towards a lethal virus at work. Image in
Western Washington University lab by Katie Campbell.
Yes, this is a deadly virus. This virus kills these animals. It’s amazing how quickly it kills them as well. That’s what struck me was the speed at which these animals would die once they became infected.
Let me just describe what we first saw and what we’re still seeing now with regard to the sea stars. For example, you would be on a dive going along and you see a sea star. Let’s say it’s a sunflower star. You look at it carefully and you realize the animal doesn’t look right. It looks deflated. In more advanced stages of the disease, the arms of the sea star actually begin to fall off. And then even more advanced, you’ll see these ulcerated holes in the body wall of the sea star. And it looks to the average person like the animal is rotting and that is exactly what’s happening to it.
Eventually, the animal will die and then bacteria move in and they very quickly consume the balance of the organic material. Within a few weeks, all you are left with is a pile of small calcareous (calcium carbonate) fragments that made up the skeleton of the sea star. So, it’s a disease which progresses very rapidly. It is widespread in terms that it affects many different species of sea stars. It’s widespread geographically in the sense that it is found right from Alaskan waters right down to southern California.
The area that I know best is southern British Columbia where I dive a lot. That’s the area that I’ve been looking at and keeping an eye on. In Washington State, like Puget Sound, I get regular reports from a friend of mine who dives a lot in Puget Sound.
The situation in Puget Sound looks really grim. It’s really bad there. Several different species (of sea stars) — they are just dying like flies. They are dropping dead — hundreds of them every day. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that since this disease first became widely known back in September of 2013, it’s not exaggerating to say that millions of sea stars have died on the (west) coast of North America.
The other thing was, too, that back in September of 2013, in Howe Sound we had unusually large numbers of sunflower stars. There were absolutely thousands and thousands of them on some of the reefs. It was one of those situations where you looked at it and thought, ‘Well, there’s way too many of them. What’s going on here? Why are there so many?’ And then, the population collapsed and within a month or so, all of those sea stars were gone — just totally erased from those reefs.
Veterinarian Dr. Kendra Bauer inserting needle into purple sea star administered an
at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, on Thursday, July 31, 2014. On left is
Dr. Karen Wolf, who calculated dosage for sea star while lead veterinarian Karen Wolf, D.V.M.,
holds the sea star. Point Defiance and many other zoos and aquariums on the West Coast
are now trying to save as many of their sea stars as possible.
Image © 2014 Lui Kit Wong/The News Tribune.
TODAY, AS WE SPEAK IN AUGUST OF 2014, WHEN YOU ARE DIVING, ARE YOU SEEING VAST AREAS COMPLETELY EMPTY OF SEA STARS?
Well, I’ll give you one example. At a place called the Defence Islands in upper Howe Sound in September of 2013, there were huge numbers of very large sunflower stars. Some of them were up to the size of a garbage can lid. They were very large, up to 3 feet across. And there were thousands of them! Now, the virus — or whatever the disease is — struck in that time and within a month, most of those animals were gone. Since then, I have dived that site several times. All of the big sunflower stars are gone. But there are some small ones that have reappeared. So we see small sunflower stars on the order of perhaps 2 inches, 3 inches, maybe 4 inches across. They are fairly abundant. They seem to be active and healthy. But what will happen to them in a few months as they get older? I’m not really sure whether these animals are resistant or more resistant to the virus? Or whether they are also going to die as they get older?
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE FOOD CHAIN WHEN THOSE BIG SEA STARS ARE GONE?
Well, when you take a major predator like a big sunflower star out of the picture, it causes a whole cascade of effects to the ecology of a reef. Now these animals, when you have huge numbers of them like we saw in the Defence Islands, they consume great quantities of mussels, barnacles, other kinds of creatures. They are pretty indiscriminate in the kinds of things that they eat. So, if you remove them from the picture, obviously the mussels and barnacles are going to have fewer predation on them. And other animals such as green urchins — I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of green urchins in some of these areas.
Green Sea Urchins, Alaska, moving in where sea stars used to dominate.
Photograph © 2014 by Joel Sartore/National Geographic.
That could be a problem because green urchins graze on seaweed. If we get a proliferation of green urchins, we may have less abundance of seaweeds in these areas. We can cross our fingers and hope it goes away. And that’s the other thing — at this point to me, it seems like this virus — maybe it’s here to stay for awhile. It may be years before this virus works its way through the system and before the newer sea stars develop some sort of immunity to it.
MY HEAVENS, WHAT WOULD THE CONSEQUENCE BE IF THIS VIRUS CONTINUED TO WIPE THEM OUT FOR YEARS?
The consequences could literally change the very nature of our shorelines.”
Warmer Waters Mean More Microbes
The huge die-off of sea stars from Alaska to San Diego, California, has provoked the hypothesis that if the culprit is a virus — or bacteria — it is taking hold of the sea stars in thsi devastating way because the waters are so much warmer. As stmospheric CO2 has steadily increased, the Earth's oceans have been absorbing a lot of the CO2. Today those surface waters are 30% more acidic than a century ago. More acid means a lower PH that destroys seashells. Calcium carbonate shells of many marine creatures cannot grow in more acidic waters and the animals die. More acidic oceans could also deteriorate the protective outer layers of sea stars. Like dominos falling, that could throw off the salt and water chemistry of sea stars and weaken their immunity so that the millions of viruses and bacteria that naturally live in seawater can take over weakened creatures.
I called Marine Biologist Chris Langdon, Ph.D., at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric science in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami. His main research is the decline and diseases of corals in the face of warming waters and other assaults of climate change. I asked Prof. Langdon if he thought the sudden lethal attack of microbes on sea stars could be directly linked to warming waters.
Chris Langdon, Ph.D., Marine Biologist, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami, Miami, Florida: “Yeah, these pathogens can be normally present and then you add the temperature, which stresses the organisms. You know, it’s spending more energy to deal with the thermal stress and suddenly its ability to resist infection goes down dramatically.
RIGHT, AND IAN HEWSON AT CORNELL — HE IS A DNA GENOME SPECIALIST — HE’S BEEN TRYING TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE SEA STARS — AND HE SAID THAT THERE’S ROUGHLY 10 MILLION VIRUSES PER MILLILITER OF SEAWATER. THERE IS A MILLION BACTERIA PER MILLILETER OF SEAWATER.
“AND THIS IS THE SAME SEAWATER THAT FLOATS THROUGH THE VEINS OF THE SEA STARS.”
Yeah. They are always present and in fact the diseases with the corals that wiped them out — there are certain types of e.coli that is a normal part of our (human) gut, that become extremely pathogenic. So it’s possible that, yes, these things are here all the time, but because something has reduced the fitness of the organism, suddenly this becomes a danger to it rather than a help.
WHAT IS YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF WARMING WATERS, AIR AND LAND ON VIRUSES AND BACTERIA (THAT ALLOWS THEM) BEING ABLE TO INFECT LIFE MORE ON THIS PLANET?
It might be as simple as the growth rate of these organisms is an exponential function of temperature. So, a single degree increase in temperature can cause dramatic increases in the rate at which these pathogens can grow. Our immune systems have evolved ways to keep them suppressed. We never eliminate them entirely. We’re just killing them slightly faster than they are able to grow currently. But if conditions warm and they are able to grow more quickly and our immune systems are unable to keep up, then plants and animals and all the different immune systems — I can see that there could be this shift in balance in favor of outbreaks of disease organisms.
SO EARTH LIFE WOULD HAVE IMMUNE SYSTEMS THAT WERE GEARED TO A COOLER PLANET AND IF IT’S WARMING MORE RAPIDLY, THEN THE IMMUNE SYSTEM IS NOT EVEN HAVING THE TIME TO CATCH UP TO THE INCREASE IN VIRUSES AND BACTERIA.
Right. And eventually, if we’re not wiped out, we’ll catch up again. This is constant battle just like how different bacterias have come immune to our antibiotics all the time. We have to keep coming up with new ones.
AND IF IT’S A VIRUS ON THE WEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA THAT IS WIPING OUT THE SEA STARS BY THE MILLIONS, IT MIGHT BE THAT THE LINK TO THIS SUDDENLY HAPPENING IS THAT IT IS A VIRUS THAT WAS SUPPRESSED BEFORE BY COOLER TEMPERATURES …
… AND NOW IS LET LOOSE BY WARMER TEMPERATURES.
Correct. That’s how I would look at it.”
Continue with Prof. Chris Langdon in the following Earthfiles report about the 6th mass extinction of Earth life that is underway forced by changing climate caused by increasing CO2 and methane in the atmosphere brought on since the human Industrial Revolution.
Click here to next report with Prof. Chris Langdon, University of Miami.